From a Local: The Complete Guide to NYC's Subway System

How to get where your going without ruining everyone's day

New York City is home to the most extensive mass transit system in the world, with 472 subway stations currently operating.

It's also among the oldest and the busiest, which comes with some downsides that visitors may not anticipate. Still, if you want an authentic experience of the city, you cannot confine yourself to Lyft cars, tour buses, and hansom cabs. Your visit is not complete until you have ventured into the fetid nethers of New York's subway tunnels. With this guide, you should survive your excursion with no (visible) trauma.

The Basics

MetroCard

Flickr user paulmmay

When visiting New York, you can use the subway to ride to and from all four boroughs—Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and not Staten Island (it's not a real borough, so you have to take the ferry). You can cross the Manhattan Bridge on the B, D, N, or Q trains to get a spectacular view of the skyline, or take more than a dozen lines for an ear-popping ride under the Hudson river. Google Maps will tell you how to get around (as long as there aren't any of the frequent service issues...) and hopefully help you figure out if you need a local train that stops at every station or an express train that goes to only the busiest stops. Subway maps are usually posted in train cars and on the platforms, and if you need it, there's even cell service in the stations now.

If you're lucky, you might also end up in one of the updated stations that provide semi-reliable train arrival times, and you might get to ride one of the modern trains with futuristic features like audible station announcements—the upgrades are wildly inconsistent, and there are still trains from the 1960s operating. But to ride the subway at all (without being tackled by overzealous cops), the first thing you're going to need is a MetroCard. It's a flimsy bit of yellow plastic with a magnetic strip, sold out of machines in every subway station. It will cost you $1 a pop, plus whatever amount you want to spend on trips—one trip currently costs $2.75, but that price seems to go up every 12 hours or so.

If you're planning to use it extensively, you might want to make your card unlimited, which will run you $33 for a week, or $127 for a month. Otherwise, you can put as much money as you think you'll use and refill it as needed using the same machine that dispenses them. If you only have the stomach to take a single trip, you can buy a single ride card for $3. And if the machine is too daunting (or a line of locals forms while you're trying to figure it out), many bodegas—AKA "delis"—also sell MetroCards.

One of the beauties of these MetroCards is that they also work with a number of other modes of transport, including the PATH trains to New Jersey, the tram to Roosevelt Island, the AirTrain to JFK. Most importantly, a swipe includes a two-hour window for a free transfer to or from a standard NYC bus, so you really can get just about anywhere with one swipe (though obviously not Staten Island, the non-borough).

The Buskers

What's even more impressive is the amount you can do without having to leave the subway system. Along with the variety of stores, restaurants, florists, and newsstands, there is enough public art to fill a dozen galleries and a thriving live music scene. Unlike the carts full of churros—one for a dollar, three for two—New York's buskers are legally allowed to share their talents without a license in subway stations and on the platform, and a great many of them are immensely talented. The larger and busier stations are particularly solid venues. The mariachi bands, barbershop singers, and dance crews who roam the trains themselves are somewhat less sanctioned. You don't have to throw them a dollar if you don't feel like it, but there's no need to be a narc about it.

The Smell

Subway spa

Improv Everywhere

There's a common misconception that the entire NYC subway system smells of stale urine. This is far from the case. Each station has its own smell—from musty basement to stagnant puddle water to sulfuric stalactites dripping from the ceiling. There are even open-air stations that smell of trees, diesel fumes, and putrefying garbage juice. Mixed in with these smells, there is often a healthy dose of stale urine, but it is hardly the sole, or even the predominant, scent.

That said, if a crowded train rolls into the station with one empty car, an overpowering stench is the best possible outcome of stepping into that car. Like most of the US, New York does not provide adequate housing for people with mental illnesses, drug addictions, or just nowhere else to go. Unlike most of the US, rent in New York costs more than the black market value of your organs, so there are a lot of homeless people who end up living their lives in the subway system, and sometimes making it smell terrible. So just choose another car.

Etiquette

Subway etiquette

This is the most important part of using the subway. New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude, but that's not entirely accurate. The reality is that New Yorkers are shockingly considerate of one another. With some notable exceptions, most of us do our best not to inconvenience or inflict stress on any of the thousands of strangers we encounter in a given day, and we often have little patience for people who don't make the same effort. Our apparent indifference to the world around us can come across as cold, but we ignore one another as a courtesy—living so much of your life surrounded by strangers is a lot less stressful with the assurance that you aren't constantly being observed and scrutinized. It provides a form of privacy and solitude, even in public.

So if you need some help navigating the subway, don't let the lack of eye contact dissuade you from asking for help. If we have the time to help, most of us will. But please understand that your tourism playground exists in the same place where we're trying to go about our daily lives. Our version of road rage is giving a nasty look to a slow tourist, so please do your best not to inconvenience us. That means letting people off the train before you try to get on, not taking up more room than you absolutely have to, and being aware of the people around you when they're trying to move through the confined space of a train car or a subway platform.

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It's no secret that the restaurant scene in New York City is one of the most impressive in the world.

Whatever you could want to eat, you can find it in New York—meaning that even if you have a slightly restrictive diet, like veganism, there's plenty of options for you. Local fast-casual chains like By Chloe and Superiority Burger are making New York one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world, but the deliciousness doesn't stop there.


Between Manhattan and Brooklyn, there's been a boom of vegan restaurants that'll satisfy any craving. Here are just a few of our favorites.

Blossom(Upper West Side + Greenwich Village)

vegan restaurant

With two locations serving both Uptown and Downtown, Blossom is a go-to for local and tourist vegans alike. They offer an elevated dining experience (and a wide-spanning takeout radius) that puts a cruelty-free spin on classic main dishes like chicken piccata, rigatoni, and grilled salmon. Complete your dinner with a fresh, fruity cocktail and tiramisu—but reservations are strongly recommended beforehand.

Jajaja (West Village + Lower East Side)

vegan Jajaja

Jajaja is the ultimate heaven for Mexican food addicts. Get your fix of south of the border staples like burritos, street tacos, and enchiladas that'll make you second guess whether or not it's actually vegan (pro tip: The nacho portion is large enough to be a meal for one person). They also have a small but mighty menu of tequila and mezcal cocktails to kick off a night of LES bar-hopping. It gets crowded here quickly, though, so try to schedule your dinner early.

Urban Vegan Kitchen(West Village)

Urban Vegan Kitchen

We get it—eating vegan can get kind of bland sometimes. But that's not an issue at Urban Vegan Kitchen, the type of restaurant that'll have you wanting to order one of everything on the menu (but we recommend the "chicken" and waffles). Co-owned by the founder of Blossom, they boast a menu that's just as edgy and exciting as their decor. Their space is large too, making it a crowd-pleasing option for a slightly larger group.

Champs Diner (Williamsburg)

Champs Diner vegan

Located near the border of hip neighborhoods Williamsburg and Bushwick, Champs is a favorite of many young Brooklynites. Their menu is full of vegan alternatives to classic diner fare like breakfast plates, cheeseburgers, and even milkshakes that taste mysteriously like the real deal, while the decor puts a quintessential Brooklyn edge on '50s digs. Who said going plant-based had to be healthy all the time, anyway?

Peacefood (Greenwich Village)

vegan Peacefood

Conveniently located just a stone's throw from Union Square—near both NYU and the New School—Peacefood is a hotspot for college students, but vegans of any age are guaranteed to enjoy their menu. They specialize in comfort food items like quiche, chicken parmesan, and chili with corn bread—all plant-based, of course. While their "chicken" tender basket is to die for, make sure to save room for dessert here, too; Peacefood's lengthy pastry menu is a dream come true.

Buddha Bodai (Chinatown)

Buddha Bodai vegan

Dim sum restaurants in Chinatown are a dime a dozen, but Buddha Bodai takes the cake for the best veggie-friendly experience in one of New York's most bustling neighborhoods. Bring your family or friends along with you to enjoy this massive menu of buns and dumplings stuffed with any type of mock meat you could want. This is also a great option for gluten-free vegans, too, as much of their menu accommodates a gluten-free diet.

Greedi Kitchen (Crown Heights)

Greedi Kitchen vegan

Crown Heights might not be the first neighborhood people think of when it comes to dining in Brooklyn, but Greedi Kitchen is making the case for delicious restaurants in the area. Inspired by its founder's many years of travel, Greedi Kitchen combines the comforting flavors of southern soul food with the added pizazz of global influences. Try one of their po'boys or the crab cake sliders. Trust us.

Screamer’s Pizzeria (Greenpoint + Crown Heights)

Screamer's Pizza vegan

We know what you're thinking: Pizza without real cheese? Call us crazy, but Screamer's does vegan pizza to perfection. If you're into classic pies like a simple margherita or pepperoni, or you want to branch out with unexpected topping combinations, Screamer's is delicious enough to impress carnivores, too (pro tip: the Greenpoint location is small and serves most pies by the slice, while the Crown Heights location is larger for sitting down).


Learning a second language is one of the coolest and most rewarding things you can do in your spare time.

However, if hopping on a one-way ticket to your country of choice isn't an option for you, it can be difficult to find an immersive experience to learn, especially past high school or college.

The next best thing is language-learning apps.

We wanted to look at the top two: DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone. Duolingo is the new kid on the block; one of the top downloaded, this free app is a favorite. Then, there's the legacy option: Rosetta Stone. For over 20 years, they've been developing their language-learning software, and their app is the most recent innovation.

They're both great options, but keep reading to figure out which one is the best for you.

Key Similarities

  • Both claim you'll expand your vocabulary
  • Both are available as an app for iOS and Android users
  • Both have a clean user interface with appealing graphics
  • Both have offline capabilities (if you pay)

Key Differences

  • DuoLingo has a popular free version along with its paid version, whereas Rosetta Stone only has a paid version
  • DuoLingo offers 35+ languages, and Rosetta Stone offers 24 languages
  • Rosetta Stone has an advanced TruAccent feature to detect and correct your accent
  • DuoLingo offers a breadth of similar vocab-recognizing features, and Rosetta Stone offers a wider variety of learning methods, like Stories

DuoLingo Overview

DuoLingo's app and its iconic owl have definitely found a place in pop culture. One of the most popular free language-learning apps, it offers 35 different languages, including Klingon, that can be learned through a series of vocabulary-matching games.

DuoLingo offers a free version and a version for $9.99 a month without ads and with offline access.

Rosetta Stone Overview

The Rosetta Stone app is a beast. There are 24 different languages to choose from, but more importantly, you get a huge variety of methods for learning. Not only are there simple games, but there are stories where you get to listen, the Seek and Speak feature, where you go on a treasure hunt to photograph images and get the translations, and the TruAccent feature, which will help you refine your accent. Whenever you speak into the app, you'll get a red/yellow/green rating on your pronunciation, so you can fine-tune it to really sound like you have a firm grasp of the language.

Rosetta Stone costs just $5.99 a month for a 24-month subscription, which gives you access to all of their 24 languages!

Final Notes

Overall, these are both excellent apps for increasing your proficiency in a new language! They both feel quite modern and have a fun experience.

When it comes to really committing words to memory and understanding them, Rosetta Stone is king.

DuoLingo definitely will help you learn new words, and the app can be addicting, but users report it as more of a game than a means to an end.

With Rosetta Stone's variety of features, you'll never get bored; there are more passive elements and more active elements to help you activate different parts of your brain, so you're learning in a more dynamic and efficient way.

The folks at Rosetta Stone are extending a special offer to our readers only: Up To 45% Off Rosetta Stone + Unlimited Languages & Free Tutoring Sessions!

Travel

So You Want to Try Workaway

Want to travel cheap, meet locals and kindred spirits, live off the land, and possibly change your life? It might be time to try Workaway.

Sitting in a house on a hill in Tuscany, Italy, watching the sun set and listening to the sound of music coming from the house in which I was staying almost rent-free, I wondered how I had gotten this lucky.

Actually, it was really all thanks to one website—Workaway.info.

Workaway Workaway


Workaway is a site that sets travelers up with hosts, who provide visitors with room and board in exchange for roughly five hours of work each weekday. The arrangement varies from host to host—some offer money, others require it—but typically, the Workaway experience is a rare bird: a largely anti-capitalist exchange.

I did four Workaways the summer I traveled in Europe, and then one at a monastery near my home in New York the summer after. Each experience, though they lasted around two weeks each, was among the most enriching times of my life—and I'd argue I learned almost as much through those experiences as I did in four years of college.

There's something extremely special about the Workaway experience, though it's certainly not for everyone.

Workaway Isn't for Everyone: What to Know Before You Go

I loved all the Workaways I went on, but the best advice I can give to anyone considering going is: Enter with an open mind. If you're someone who doesn't do well with the unexpected, if you're not willing to be flexible, if you're a picky eater or easily freaked out, then it's likely that you won't have a good experience at a Workaway.

There are exceptions to all of this. At the Workaway I stayed at in Italy, one of the travelers was suffering from stomach bloating, and the host helped cure her with a diet of miso. (I'm not saying you should go Workawaying if you're ill—this traveler's mother also came to oversee everything—but still, you never know what you'll find).

Workaway WoIsango.com

You should also probably be willing and able to actually work at your Workaway. These aren't vacations, and some hosts will be stricter and less forgiving than others regarding your work ethic. If you're someone who has no experience with difficult farm work, for example, it might not be a good idea to do a Workaway on a farm.

How to Choose a Host

The Workaway website boasts a truly overwhelming number of hosts. You can narrow your search down by location, but you can also search key terms that can help guide you in the right direction. You might search "music," for example—that's how I found the Italy location. You'll find hosts in busy cities and in the most remote mountains of India; you'll find opportunities to tutor and explore. You'll find shadiness, too, so trust your instincts.

Take time to actually read the host's entire bio before reaching out. Read all the comments, too, and if you're nervous or a first-timer, only reach out to hosts who have exclusively glowing reviews. I had the best experiences with hosts that had left extremely detailed bios—that showed me they were likely going to be dedicated hosts.

I also chose hosts whose bios gave me a good feeling, something like a spark of electricity or recognition. This instinctual method might not work for everyone, but it certainly led me in the right direction in all of my Workaway experiences. My Workaways gave me some of the best memories and deepest relationships of my life, and that was partly thanks to the fact that I chose places that were good fits for me.

For example, I chose to stay alone with a wizened academic in France. Something about his bio and descriptions resonated with me enough to trust him. (I also read some of his many thousand-page-long treatises on peace and compassion and decided that if someone could write this and be a psychopath, this wasn't a world I wanted to live in anyway). It was the right decision—and the two weeks I spent there were some of the most enlightening of my entire life.

When you reach out to a host, particularly if it's someone you really want to stay with, it's a good idea to frame your initial contact email as a cover letter of sorts—make sure you explain who you are and personalize your letter to fit each host.

Ixcanaan A Workaway painting experienceWorkaway


Travel Safely

Especially if you're traveling alone, it's always a good idea to choose a host whose page has tons of good reviews. Aside from that, a quick Google search and a scan of any social media pages related to your potential host can't hurt.

Ultimately, Workawaying requires a certain amount of trust and faith on both the host and the traveler's parts—you're either trusting someone to stay in your home or trusting a stranger to host and feed you.

But that trust, in my experience, also results in rapid and deep connections unlike anything I've experienced in the "real world." When you go and share a home with someone, you're also sharing yourself with them, and in that exchange there are the seeds of a powerful bond.

Participate Fully

Wherever you go, you'll want to open your mind and participate fully. Adjust yourself to your host's lifestyle, not the other way around, and take time to get to know your host and the others around you.

You might find that you become someone you never knew you were. As a lifelong introvert, I somehow managed to develop close relationships with many of the people I was staying with.

This might be because most people who are at Workaways are seeking something for one reason or another. In my experience, you find lots of people who are at junctures in their lives, seeking connection and meaning. With the right Workaway, you might just find it.

Workaway The Broke Backpacker - WorkawayThe Broke Backpacker